Does ‘Non-Doing’ Mean Doing Nothing? The Case for Just Being or Stillness

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If you spend some time learning more about mindfulness and meditation you may come across something called ‘non-doing’. What is ‘non-doing’?

Does ‘non-doing’ mean doing nothing?

Is it an invitation to avoid work and become lazy? Let’s investigate. In the context of mindfulness, ‘non-doing’ invites for an inquiry into your relationship with ‘doing’ and ‘activity’.

‘Non-doing’ points to an opportunity that is available to you to really examine how you relate to the things you do in general. Why do you do the things that you do? What does actually drive you to take action?

Not only that, how do you do the things that you do. What kind of attitude you bring to the activities that you engage in? Be it work, leisure or something else.

A human being cannot survive without being active. In order for you to feed, clothe and shelter yourself, you have to move. You have to do things. You cannot just sit and do nothing. That is the nature of your existence.

You have to work and do things to earn a living.

But how much work do you need to do to earn a living?

Our lives on this planet are fraught with uncertainties. You cannot be completely oblivious to that. Hence it makes sense that you not only earn to live for today, but you at least try to earn extra to cover for the uncertainties.

This is where it gets sticky. How much extra effort is needed to cover for the unknown in the life? How much fancier houses, nutritional food and sophisticated environment do you need to create?

How much extra earning is going to be adequate to cover for the uncertainties in life? This is where the innate human nature comes into play. Your intrinsic nature is such that

it is almost impossible for you to ever feel that you have enough, no matter how much you earn

or how much you prepare.

A perpetual existential angst, keeps driving you to seek out ways to ensure comfortable living. Comfortable as in with less uncertainty. This drive easily translates into you taking more action. You are continuously doing more things.

You value getting things done, striving and pushing yourself hard. You look for ways to do more in less time. Your very attitude has made this the most productive country in the world!.

You take this attitude towards work and activity for granted. Worth, value and popularity of everything is judged mainly in connection with activities. More productive person is worth more.

Even in your leisure or vacation time, what you value is activities. Popularity of vacation destinations is judged by top 10 things you can ‘do’ there.

Contrary to what you may think, the most of the behavior that you engage in is driven by subconscious instincts. This behavior gets conditioned into you and it becomes your second nature. You engage in such behavior without full awareness.

Covering for uncertainties is the only one of the collection of instinctual behaviors that we exhibit. Another strong candidate is keeping up with the Joneses.

It is not only keeping up with the Joneses, it really is keeping up with your siblings, your neighbors, your coworkers and even your spouse.

It really is keeping up with whoever you interact with on a regular basis. And I will refer that group as ‘peers’.

You feel compelled to compare yourself with what is around you. You drag yourself in a mad race where you are constantly pushing yourself to beat or keep up with the peers. You are out there either to prove yourself, or at least to not get left behind.

It is as if you have this inner standard that you continually strive to maintain. And whenever you feel a threat to this standard, you scramble to maintain and restore it.

What are these standards? Some examples: Do you have similar levels of material belonging that your peers have? If your brother gets a bigger house than your current house, you feel compelled to have a bigger house.

Until you get to buy a commensurate house that fulfills your inner requirements, your actions and behaviors are strongly influenced by this idea that you are in the breach of your inner standards.

You may periodically throw pity parties for yourself. You may try to convince yourself that your smaller in comparison house has other compensatory features that make up for its inferior size compared to your brother’s house.

You may find tremendous joy if someone complements your house or any features of your house. Because of your subconscious preoccupation with the breach and your stumbling across what you count as an evidence that might vindicate you!

The drama, driven by subconscious forces can be extremely powerful. As long you have no awareness of it, it hijacks you and dictates your thoughts and actions. It can lead you to do irrational things, like working extremely hard, because you think that will help you right what has been wronged.

At the end of the day these are just the evolutionary forces at play. Such instinctual behavior drove our ancestors to ensure they had enough material possessions. It mattered the amount of stuff you possessed, in ensuring your survival as well ensuring a mate.

Those who were more driven were more likely to have survived and mated. And hence they passed on the genes, which are obviously prevalent now.

The cousins or contemporaries of these ancestors, who didn’t have such a drive couldn’t pass on their genes.

Does that justify the drive? Does it mean you have to be driven to maintain your inner standard that is contingent upon your peers? Do you have to have the big house that your neighbor has?

Whether to take action that your instinctual desires want you to is always a choice. It was a choice in the distant past and it is a choice now. Although throughout the history you have largely been ignorant about the deep rooted instincts and urges that drive your behavior.

You have been ignorant, largely because by default, you fully identify with your deep-seated urges that propel you to desire a certain outcome and take action to achieve that outcome.

But you can learn not to identify with these cravings. You can learn to get in touch with them. It is possible for you to become aware of these impulses.

Without awareness you see no choices and feel compelled to be driven by these impulses.

Without awareness you feel you have to have that latest expensive gadget that your peers have, you have to have the car as good as your peers, you have to visit places your peers visited, you have to send your kids to the private schools your peers send their kids to.

It is how the natural selection works. It implants these deep-seated proclivities. Actually, it rather selects them.

Natural selection does so because it maximizes the chances of you passing on your genes. It doesn’t care about the quality of your life.

Natural selection doesn’t care about how much you suffer, get stressed, worry and get depressed as you go through your life.

Natural selection implants a set of cravings, but it doesn’t mean you are a helpless robot. You have been given the gift of awareness which you can use to modulate the cravings. It is possible for you to know these subconscious forces in a better way and doing so can relieve you from their tyrannies.

You can get to know better how your mind works. You can get to know that your intrinsic proclivities are in the service of the natural selection which doesn’t care about well-being.

In knowing all these, you may arrive to a point where you are able to discern what is essential for survival and a fulfilling life. You can learn to separate the chaff from the wheat.

This insight can empower to you to exercise your own agency and realize the alternate choice that are available. At times in the form of not entertaining the conditioned urges. On the surface, this may seem like a suppression or a kind of contrivance, but it actually isn’t.

Along this line, you can realize the always available choice of not engaging in any outward activity and just being with yourself and being still! This is just one form of non-doing.

You don’t have to stop doing whatever you are doing and just sit on your bottom for the rest of your life. This is about striking a balance in you life, where you infuse your frenetic ‘doing’ mode with islands of ‘non-doing’.

With all the buzz about doing, have you ever thought, who is doing, all the ‘doing’?

It is the being that is responsible for all the doing. The non-doing also means to just be or to pay attention to the being.

Sitting or lying down meditation practices, where we mainly engage in the awareness of breath is a form of non-doing.

In meditation you espouse the attitudes of non-striving, non-efforting and non-achieving with no goals. As it is said in meditation there is no where to go and nothing to achieve.

There are more ways to practice non-doing. You can practice non-doing without any meditation. You can just choose to take it easy, kick back and relax from time to time.

Yet

another form of non-doing can happen even while you are actively doing something.

In order to fully comprehend, you have to investigate your attitude in carrying out your daily activities.

Typically, when you take on any task, there is an agenda or a goal that accompanies the task. You do most of the tasks to achieve a goal and you expect a certain outcome. You take on a task because of the expectation that you want your present situation to be different.

It is really the sense of not being there yet, not having achieved something and hence not being complete or not being where you want to be.

Your activity is intricately interwoven with expectations and desires for things to be different. You may think you don’t have enough money and you want more of it. You may think you don’t have enough enjoyment and you want more.

You educate yourself because you want to learn more skills and increase your worth. You want to increase your worth because you want more material possessions. You go on a vacation because you expect your vacation will provide you with enjoyment.

But, your expectation and agendas don’t have to be present in order to carry out any task. Strange as it may sound, an activity can also be undertaken purely for its own sake. Without any expectations without any goals and without any agenda.

When carried out in such a manner it can become an effortless activity and that is

the other form of non-doing. Where the activity is done purely for the sake of itself with no expectations or attachment.

If there are no expectations, you cannot become dejected at the end of the activity.

The moment you learn to accept things as they are and stop wanting things to be any different than they are to make you happier, more satisfied or more complete, you have taken a huge leap towards your personal growth.

At that point, nothing in this universe can take away your peace of mind, contentment and equanimity as you have come to terms with things as they are. Which is the pinnacle of wisdom. All your activities become non-doing now.

This is not to be equated with fatalism. If your life is currently miserable, it doesn’t mean you become a passive victim destined to suffer perpetually. The message here may sound conflicting, but it is not.

You have to realize that misery and pain is part of life. They visit us from time to time as long as we are alive. When you suffer, you have to ask yourself the question whether you have done everything you can to address the suffering?

If you expect external circumstances to change, your suffering won’t go. You have to come to terms with reality that you cannot expect others to change. Yet that doesn’t mean you cannot send skillful messages to others asking for a change.

You can do that, but despite that if external circumstances don’t change, it is up to you to change your perspective, or perhaps walk away from the circumstance.

There is a time to walk away from the circumstances, but not without having done the inner work of doing your part in trying to resolve the situation. Because if your general strategy is avoidance or distraction, you will always be running from life. It is better to face life head on.

And in this regard non-doing is the effortless doing where you take on the activity without resisting to what already is and without any expectation of a specific outcome.

Sometimes you may be surprised to find that you end up being more creative and more productive when you approach your tasks from the non-doing attitude.

This is because expectations and desires and agendas tend to interfere with the activity itself and may prevent the creative expression or hinder the effective workflow.

Psychology has a term ‘flow’ which points to this effortless non-doing. This isn’t any mystical state. It is the state that when you are so focused on the activity at hand that you are completely absorbed in the activity itself.

You may have experienced this state while playing your favorite musical instrument, gardening, working out or some activity that you are really passionate about. During the state, a sense of time disappears. So does your expectations and attachments.

Summary/Main Points

Non-doing can mean an absence of outward physical activities.

It can also mean effortless activities where the activity happens purely for its own sake, without any investment, expectations, attachments or desire for things to be different.

In non-doing you try to cultivate allowance for things to unfold on their own.

An inquiry into the nature of the workings of your mind and your attitude towards ‘doing’ can help you put ‘non-doing’ into perspective.

Evolutionary forces predispose us to constantly worry about accumulating possessions and keeping up with people around us.

Natural selection doesn’t care about your happiness or your well being.

You are not a slave to your biology or to the natural selection. There are things you can do.

Non-doing is meant to work as a balancing factor in the rush of the life.

How to practice non-doing?

TRY:

Carve out at least 5 minutes in a day to practice doing nothing.

Preferably when no one else is present and there aren’t a lot of distractions around you.

You can use a timer on your phone.

It is more important that you enter this period with an intention of doing nothing, not having to do anything, planning nothing.

It is okay if you find yourself thinking, worrying and planning within this time. When you catch yourself, you can gently try to release those thoughts or worries with a deep breath.

You can try this at your desk, right after you are done with a meal and others have left or right before going to sleep even while lying on your bed. There is no preferred place to practice this.

OR:

Make time to engage in your favorite hobby where you know you don’t usually think much else except for doing the activity, for at least 5 minutes.

If you don’t have any hobbies, try exploring different activities.

The activity cannot be extremely difficult or it cannot be very easy. It has to have the right balance of difficulty which you can easily take on as a challenge.

Be patient with yourself as you search for such activity if you haven’t already found one.

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